At LOPE, we’ve been involved with nearly 200 horse adoptions here at the ranch. We’ve seen many amazing matches between horse and human, and it’s one of the most rewarding parts of our work. The surprises are what make the adoptions extra fun to watch — like the difficult, complicated horse who falls in love with a gentle intermediate rider or the nervous, shy horse who blossoms into a show champion because his rider believes in him.
But we’ve also seen mismatches. Typically we spot these at the first adoption visit, when the prospective adopter comes to meet the horse and ride. It can be delicate situation to find a way to politely tell someone that they aren’t quite the right partner for that particular horse. Fortunately, we usually don’t have to do that — the rider knows that the horse isn’t the right match and is happy to keep shopping elsewhere.
Then there is the case of the stubborn mismatch — where the rider refuses to see that the horse isn’t a suitable choice. Most of us who work with horses see this particular situation occasionally here and there (whether it’s an over-mounted rider at a clinic or a tall cowboy loping a pony-sized steed during a trail ride). The most classic example is often a less experienced equestrian teamed with a gorgeous, but fiery, horse. The rider just can’t seem to accept that the horse isn’t the dream steed they hoped for, in spite of gentle hints from friends and instructors (as well as spectators to their latest near-disaster in the arena).
My original goal with this post was to come up with an entertaining list of “you might need a different horse” quips — as a way to get people talking about this topic and thinking about their own horses. The goal was to provoke thought and maybe help a few people (and horses) out there who need new riding partners.
As I typed along cheerily, my fingers paused, and I realized how well suited I am to write this post. I am in this situation myself — and it’s very hard to accept.
Those of you who have read my book about the LOPE horses know that Sally, the little bay mare, has been a huge part of my work at LOPE. Sally has plenty of pep as well as a lively, sweet disposition — alert and sensible all at the same time. Short and stocky with a round build, Sally is especially fun to ride in western tack.
Sally has taught me more than any other horse at LOPE — she was there with me at several key moments in my development as an aspiring horseman. For example, at a Ray Hunt clinic, Sally demonstrated to me the importance of adapting to fit the situation. During a demonstration ride at a horse expo, Sally showed me everything in myself that was lacking (and that was good) when it came to horsemanship. She means the world to me.
And I’m no longer the right rider for her.
About 20 months ago, I noticed that Sally seemed less rounded in her hindquarters. Sally is one of those short (15H) mares who seems to be curvy everywhere (belly, topline, even her ears). I assumed it was that she needed more exercise, a different diet (like more hay or alfalfa) and maybe a change in her worming program. But even after all those things, Sally’s booty remained leaner and it seemed, if anything, to be getting worse.
Sally still rode mostly the same — she was perky, sweet and easy (without ever being boring). But I felt something was wrong — and I began making excuses to not ride her as much. Finally, one day, I approached her from behind in the pasture and saw that one hindquarter was now much flatter than the other one. And it hit home to me that something more unusual was happening.
So I took her to Austin Equine Associates, and the diagnosis was that she had had an impact injury in the pelvic area at some point in her life (maybe a starting gate injury). Sally now had muscle atrophy in her hindquarters and the chances weren’t high that it would rebound back to normal. But there was also good news: she was very much serviceably sound and showed little sign of obvious lameness. She was weak on that hindquarter, of course, and high-powered sports weren’t going to in her future, but with steady riding, she might well tone up the surrounding muscles and become stronger.
So I kept riding Sally — taking her to clinics, doing trail riding at the ranch and generally thinking of her as my fun, “go to” horse. It didn’t matter to me that she wasn’t the perfect sport horse or a high-powered athlete — we were good friends and I loved our rides together. Sure, we often were more likely to ride jagged ovals than elegant circles and rarely attempted any kind of more advanced work (such as collection) — but we were just there to have pleasant rides and nothing more. And that’s just what happened for both Sally and me — nothing more.
Then, over the past few months, friends and colleagues began trying to help me see that Sally needs someone different. I didn’t recognize that at the time — I just wondered why people seemed to always talk enthusiastically about how I should ride Lightening Ball (my other favorite LOPE horse to ride) whenever I brought Sally to an event or clinic. Finally, a trusted friend was blunt with me: at 5’8” and 145 lbs, I am too big for Sally in her current condition. She has to put in tons of effort to pack me around. Plus she tries too hard to please me and give me the bigger, longer rides we used to do all the time.
Neither of us can progress further when we are riding together. The work we used to do is simply too hard for Sally — her needs have changed. Yet at the same time, she still enjoys light riding, long grooming sessions, ground work and hanging out with her pasture buddies. Sally has a great deal to offer to a good home — as long that home isn’t me.
Needless to say, I was quite resistant to these facts. It felt disloyal; as if I was tossing Sally aside for not being good enough anymore. But the reality is that I am holding Sally back by not letting her go to the ideal rider, job and home for her. When I realized this, I was very sad, because I knew that the best thing I could do for Sally was find her the right home.
For all of my experience with the LOPE horses, you would think I would have figured this out much sooner. But many of us horse owners have such a strong emotional bond with our horses that we forget to be objective. Another horse friend told me the story of a beautiful buckskin horse that she had worked with — they had a strong connection on the ground and made much progress with his trust issues. But he had been abused and was very fearful of being ridden. And my friend came to the conclusion (reluctantly, like me) that she was not the right person to take him to his full potential.
She rehomed Dakota to a trainer who specialized in working with horses like him. Many months later, she saw them riding together — a deeply emotional moment for her. She writes: “I think the biggest mistake people make in this situation is putting themselves and their own desires before that of the horse. If I had been selfish, I would have kept Dakota and he would have been a pasture ornament for the rest of his life. Now, he has a purpose and is probably much happier being able to trust humans again.”
So Sally is now officially up for adoption. She is a wonderful little mare and a terrific teacher. If you think you might be the perfect home for her, please contact us for more information. I have lots of great stories about Sally to share, and I promise to smile when the right home comes along and be happy for Sally (instead of sad for myself).
And for those readers who are wondering what my original idea for this post would have looked like, below is my quiz about horse and rider matches.
Quiz: Are You and Your Horse a Good Match?
Here are some questions that I have found useful to consider:
- Do you frequently postpone riding sessions with your horse because he is having physical problems? Is your horse ever sore (legs, back, withers, etc) after riding? Is this a consistent pattern?
- Have friends or family ever suggested to you that you might need a different type of horse? Has a trainer/instructor ever told you that your horse wasn’t a good match? Have multiple trainers/instructors suggested that you might want to reconsider your horse choice? Note: Multiple professionals giving you this type of feedback is a very serious signal to think about.
- Has anyone ever told you that they were worried that you were going to get hurt with your horse?
- When you ride your horse, do you both progress steadily over time? Do you work on new things or always do the same routine? Are either of you bored?
- Do you have fun when you ride your horse? Note: If your stomach is churning and you only exhale every 15 minutes while in the saddle, you are not having fun.
- Do you put off learning more advanced riding techniques because you aren’t sure you and your horse can do those together? Note: Not everyone is interested in learning how to piaffe, but this question did help me realize what was going on with Sally and me.
- Do you spend more time on the ground with your horse (round pen work, hand walking, grooming, etc) than you do riding your horse? Note: This question is not directed at folks who have pasture pals they adore but don’t ride for a good reason (the horse is retired or in rehab, for example). The question is for people who have a horse they acquired for riding. I often groomed or round penned Sally, but didn’t ride her as much — even though I considered her one of my primary riding horses.
- How often have you ridden your horse without supervision (i.e., not in a lesson) in the past 6 months? In the past year? A low number (i.e., one that you can actually remember) is food for thought.
- Pretend for a minute that you HAVE to rehome your horse for a good reason (such as you just got offered a dream job in New Zealand and can’t take your horse there). How does that make you feel? Sad, excited, relieved?
- If you use a trainer for your horse, how long has your horse been in training with that person? Have you switched trainers since you’ve had your horse? If so, how many trainers has your horse been with in the last year? In the last two years?
- Pretend for a minute that the horse person you trust or admire more than anyone (your current instructor, your most revered horsemanship master, your barn BFF, or Ray Hunt himself speaking from the grave) just sat you down and told you that your horse needs someone different. How do you react — are you angry (“What do they know?”), defiant (“I’ll show them and ride my horse in the Olympics one day”), concerned (“Oh no, what if they are right”) or sad (“I know they are right”)?
There are no official “scores” for this questionnaire. If you are noticing a pattern in your answers, please consider the quiz as a gentle catalyst for provoking new thought and insight into your view of your horse.